Having spent the better part of a college term traveling and living in the deserts of the southwestern United States that was so memorable that I insisted my husband relive the experience with me on our honeymoon, to say the least he was verifiably un-impressed. (He says I can tell you this!) There is a photograph of him picking his nose in each National monument, ah well....

Aside from packing a set of weights that went unused and never mentioned (shhhh). He and a sundry of bell hops dutifully lugged them up and down a variety of motel stairways. Not to metion that while we were at Carlsbad Caverns we did buy at great expense a beautiful clock handcrafted from desert sandstone. Inscribed on the back are the words; Made in Tucson, Arizona from whence it originated, and hence returned to hang almost twenty three years later in the living room as a memento. I guess if I have to pick one place as a favorite it would have to be the Saguaro National Park. There are so many wonderful parks in Arizona you don't want to miss this one! To really enjoy it I recommend staying for two to three weeks. There is always something new to discover.

There are two Saguaro National Parks, both the sites are preserved because they have large stands of saguaro cacti which grow only in portions of the desert that span Arizona and Mexico. Only recently redesignated as a a part of the U.S. National Parks and Monuments in October of 1994 elevating the giant saguaro to an American treasure.

The older of the two is Saguaro Park east. Established in 1933 by President Hoover on his last day in office to preserve the large number of saguaro growing there, the main section includes Tucson’s highest peaks, Rincon, Spud Rock and Mica Mountains. Located about 15 miles east of central Tucson via Old Spanish Trail Road, it has over 75 miles of hiking trails ranging from sky islands in the Rincon Mountain Range which support these "islands" of pine, fir and aspen forest communities separated from each other by a "sea" of desert scrub and desert grassland.

In 1961 President Kennedy established the west park after it was determined that many of the older saguaro were dying. Since they can live for well over two hundred years it was hard to tell what was causing this. By 1985 much of that forest had disappeared. The intervening decades have since been punctuated by a quiet but steady scientific debate over who, or what, was to blame, and what to do. The prevailing theory today is that during several days in February 1939, Tucson was caught in the grip of an uncommonly cold freeze, with daytime temperatures getting up to only 25 degrees.

    In the months that followed, rangers at the Saguaro National Monument noticed that more and more hitherto healthy cacti were dying, toppling over where they stood. On their corpses was found something that no ranger had seen before: pockets of brown ooze that gave off the unmistakable smell of decay.

    For the next two decades, local scientists joined rangers at the Monument--redesignated Saguaro National Park in 1995--to conduct a battery of experiments aimed at defeating this strange new disease, now dubbed "brown rot.".....they first tried removing infected "herds," leveling 320 acres of once-prime cactus forest with bulldozers and drag chains and burying the felled cacti, now doused with kerosene, in a mass grave. When the disease continued to spread, antibiotics were injected into and pesticides sprayed upon mature saguaros in the hope that if germs or insects were carriers of rot. Neither contained the epidemic. In 1940 (Stanley M. Alcorn) a scientist tracking the phenomena noted, "if you look at the ooze coming out of an injured or sick saguaro you'll see a bacterium we call Erwinia cacticida. How the decline of the forest is related to this bacterium, and what factors increase the saguaro's susceptibility to it, we just don't know." (By the mid-1950s the scientists gave up their search for a cure) ....(T)hen some 200 adult cacti within the boundaries of Saguaro National Park died almost immediately after enduring a hard freeze in December 1978. If you track the weather history of the last fifty years......the climate has become slightly colder.....It's small wonder (says a desert botanist), that most of the end-of-saguaro scare emerged from this small patch of unlikely but highly visible territory.

So it turned out that it was cold and not disease that was the greatest enemy of the saguaro. Some of the frostbitten succulents may take years to show the effects of a freeze and that this is part of their natural life cycle. By 1965 they were making a "phenomenal comeback," where thirty years ago native plants had been browsed to a ground, brown rot or freezes had killed acres of adult plants, cactus pups are now thriving. Every scientist agrees that the biggest threat to their extinction today are the numerous strip malls and the hotly debating sprawl of urban developments.

Combined together, these Tucson bookends parks consists of approximately 83,000 acres of the Sonoran Desert. Most visitors enjoy scenic drives, bird watching, photography, hiking, and participating in guided walks. Saguaro National Park West located in the Tucson Mountain is about 15 miles west of central Tucson via Speedway Boulevard. It's at the base of a narrow and breathtaking drive called Bajada Loop. While many bike enthusiasts enjoy it, you may want to consider carefully taking an RV this way because the roads are narrow and tight in some of the areas. It's not for the faint of heart, but the nice thing about the west park is that there is no admission fee. It has five scenic picnic areas, four that can be reached by road, and one by trail. These have shaded tables and outhouses, but no water. All trash must be packed out. Horses are allowed on many trails and many people elect to explore the Parks on horseback. The best camping spot ever is the Gilbert Ray Campground located in the west park because it's right next door to the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum. It's a unique zoo, natural history museum and botanical garden, all in one place. On exhibit are more than 300 live animals, including mountain lions, prairie dogs, Gila monsters, hawks, hummingbirds and bighorn sheep; with every animal is in it’s natural habitat. The landscaping has 1,000 species of plants indigenous to the Sonoran Desert habitat. This is a must see if you are anywhere near Tucson, as it truly represents the habitat of the desert. Also, tucked right in this area, is another one of Tucson’s major attractions, Old Tucson Studios built in in 1939 for the filming of the Western classic Arizona

Summertime brings the afternoon monsoons where one can practically hear the saguaro drinking water and the possibility of flash flooding as well as lightening. The optimum time of year to hike and camp is between October and April, as highs typically reach 65-75 degrees. Don't forget though that the desert in the winter, temperatures fall quickly after the sun goes down. Because there is little cloud cover to keep the heat in nighttime lows can reach freezing. There's nothing like getting up to a "dawn chorus" of awakening birds as the sky lightens before sunrise or falling asleep to coyote songs under a clear desert sky full of stars. The museum is a great place to learn all about the desert from the many experts employed there. A good idea is to hike in the cool mornings when the critters are most active and then visit the museum to learn about what you saw. There's so much to see so why not pick a focus for the day--say, wildflowers or lizards? Some things you might want to take with you on your hike:

  • A magnifying glass. The desert is fascinating on every scope, from the rocky and grand landscape to the least conspicuous cactus flower. Even an inexpensive magnifier can help you pull out those tiny cactus spines and can bring you up close and personal with even the smallest desert dwelling denizens.
  • Binoculars are a must have especially if you like birding. The lighter the better so you don't end the day with a sore neck. Sturdy too for withstanding any amount of bashing against tree limbs, and the occasional catapult off the car seat from sudden stops. A good pair of binoculars will give you a good field of vision, be able to focus quickly, fit your hands, are still okay when knocked to the ground and be able to withstand some inclement weather.
  • Camera. While Ansel Adams packed in mules with all of his camera equipment to shoot his infamous pictures of the Sonoran desert. If you're a new to cameras, start with something inexpensive, lightweight, and simple; forget the bells and whistles. The latest disposables are great for take alongs and reasonably priced not to mention light weight and no need to worry about extra film and spare batteries.
  • Notebook. Indispensable. Making field notes is a good way to look more closely at the desert, and a wonderful way to evoke the experience of a special hike many years later. Very useful if you run across something you can't identify. Jotting down a short description and making a little sketch will improve the chances of the docent at the museum of being able to tell you about it .
Some precautions when hiking the desert. Make sure tell someone about your plans, when you are leaving where you are going and when you should return. Hike with a companion and make the excursions short until you're acclimated to the heat. Never forget you're in a prickly horror land; don't back up without looking behind you! Take a siesta in the middle of the day it's too hot, even the critters do. Be alert for encounters with snakes. Most importantly carry plenty of water, wear sunscreen and protective clothing. Light clothing prevents the rapid loss of water by perspiration.

Don't miss the ancient petroglyphs carved into the rocks at the Signal Hill Picnic Area. These designs of animal and people were etched long ago by the prehistoric Hohokam who hunted and lived in the Tucson Basin. They were a culture that utilized floodwater farming, growing their crops close to stream banks. The Tohono O'odham of the region continue to harvest saguaro fruit in the area, like their ancestors, to make jam, syrup and ceremonial wine.

Both parks are located in Pima County, Arizona and open daily dawn to dusk. Call ahead for reservations, they're free! To get there:

Saguaro West: Take Interstate 10 to Speedway Boulevard, at exit 248. Turn west on Speedway Blvd, the name will change to Gates Pass Road for a short stretch then to Kinney Rd. Turn north on Kinney to the park entrance. The recommended route for oversized vehicles is from Interstate 19, get off at the Ajo Way at exit 99, go west to Kinney Rd., then north to the park entrance.

Saguaro East:Take Interstate 10 to the Houghton Road exit number 275 and turn north to Escalante road. Go east on Escalante to Old Spanish Trail then north to the park entrance. The entrance fee there is four dollars.

Sources:

GORP Saguaro National Park - Essentials:
www.gorp.com/gorp/resource/us_national_park

Mondo Arizona:
www.phoenixnewtimes.com

Saguaro National Park :
http://www.epinions.com/park-review

Saguaro National Park:
www.pima.com/

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